Unsurprisingly, there’s a long history of falsehoods in Australian politics.

A decade ago Crikey discussed Tony Abbott’s complete lack of interest in facts and predicted he would be our first postmodern prime minister. But Abbott’s disregard for facts was in the service of a political agenda of constant, remorseless attack and negativity in relation to his opponents.

Scott Morrison lies occasionally about his opponents, yes, but most of his lies are about himself, or his government, and what it has done, or failed to do; often he has lied about things he himself has said or done, as if he wasn’t present when a woman refused to shake his hand and he turned his back on her, or he didn’t carefully explain to Parliament that the secretary of prime minister and cabinet had given him no update about his report in relation to Brittany Higgins.

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Julia Gillard’s term as prime minister was dogged by accusations of lying, particularly about her statement during the 2010 election campaign, “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”. There never was a carbon tax under Gillard — but there was a carbon pricing scheme (a distinction Gillard did make later during the campaign). While knowing full well the distinction between a tax and a pricing scheme, Tony Abbott and his media supporters insisted Gillard had lied, and she later expressed her deep regret she hadn’t better articulated what at the time appeared a semantic difference.

The Howard government’s lack of truthfulness played an important role in its ouster in 2007. John Howard himself developed a reputation for extraordinary casuistry: his “never ever” promise on a GST; his “core” and “non-core” election promises; his attempt to wriggle out of his 2004 election ad claim that “interest rates will always be lower under the Coalition”; the exposure of the “children overboard” lie in the 2001 campaign. But far worse than any election spin was the lie that took Australia into the disastrous Iraq war — that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The WMD lie was reminiscent of Robert Menzies’ lie to take Australia into Vietnam in 1965. According to the historian Nicholas Ferns, Menzies decided to send an Australian battalion to South Vietnam partly to ensure continued American interest in the region and not, as claimed, because the takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia. Ferns explained in The Conversation:

The South Vietnamese government and the American ambassador in Saigon, Maxwell Taylor, were initially reluctant to receive more foreign troops. It seemed that the necessary South Vietnamese invitation wasn’t going to be forthcoming. Fortunately for Menzies, the South Vietnamese government was persuaded to accept the Australian offer. A formal request was given just before Menzies made his speech in Parliament.

Before Howard, one of Paul Keating’s most famous moments — the “sweetest victory of all” in 1993 — paved the way for a line that would dog him afterwards: the “L-A-W law tax cuts” that he used to outflank John Hewson’s Fightback, but half of which ended up going into superannuation (though the other half were paid early). That was still dogging Wayne Swan 20 years later.

Bob Hawke suffered a similar fate when he misspoke a planned election campaign launch line in 1987 as “no Australian child will live in poverty” by 1990 rather than the planned, vaguer, “no Australian child need live in poverty” — though he still won again in 1990.

Malcolm Fraser and John Howard also survived one of the more egregious falsehoods of Australian political history — Howard’s 1978 cancellation of the “fistful of dollars” tax cuts he and Fraser had promised in the 1977 election campaign.

Fraser also benefited from the extraordinary lie of John Kerr, who for the rest of his life after 1975 insisted he had not discussed the dismissal of Gough Whitlam with anyone before it occurred. According to Monash University historian Jenny Hocking, it’s one of the great lies of Australian history.

“What we now know is so vastly different to the dismissal narrative that ran for 20 or 30 years before material started to come out,” she said.

“Had any of these secret contacts been acknowledged at the time, the dismissal simply could not have happened.”

According to a statutory declaration signed by Fraser in 2006, which emerged shortly after his death in 2015, the former prime minister claimed that Kerr had called him on the morning of the dismissal to alert him and to obtain assurances Fraser would immediately call an election. Kerr had always denied the phone call had included any discussion of the events that were about to take place, including in his biography.

“There’s nothing in our history that comes close to this in terms of the deception of the public,” Hocking said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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